Derek Trucks: The Master of Blues Soloing
Last summer I was lucky enough to see Guns N’ Roses when they came and played in London. From when I first started playing the guitar, I have been a huge fan and Slash remains one of my all time favourite guitarists. So getting the opportunity to see him play live was unbelievable.
Undoubtedly, the highlight of the gig for me were Slash’s solos and the instrumental guitar sections that he only plays live (in London he did a version of The Godfather and also Wish you Were Here). As a guitar player watching one of my all time heroes, I was totally entranced.
This evidently wasn’t the case for everyone. During one of these sections, my friend (and a fellow guitar player) turned to me and said, ‘the crowd don’t care about the solos, they just want the riffs’
I observed the next couple of songs and realised he was right. Every time Slash played one of the iconic riffs – like Sweet Child O’ Mine, Welcome to the Jungle or You Could Be Mine – the crowd went wild. His solos -and especially the long ones – just didn’t have the same affect. You could feel parts of the crowd get drawn in by them but a much larger portion switched off.
As a guitar player and a fan of guitarists who go in for long solos, I didn’t think too much about it. A lot of the blues music to which I listen features the guitar at its centre. Solos appear often and they tend to be my favourite part of the songs. More recently though, my playlist has diversified a bit and my perspective has somewhat shifted. This is mostly owing to my discovery of a guitar player very different to Slash in style and approach; Derek Trucks.
Derek Trucks: A Blues Guitar Prodigy
Given that Derek Trucks’ uncle Butch was one of the founding members of The Allman Brothers Band – it is perhaps unsurprising that Trucks became a musician. He learnt to play the guitar as a young child and by his early teens, he was playing as part of The Allman Brothers Band. He has since gone on to perform with some of the best guitarists of all time, as well as to form The Derek Trucks Band, and more latterly – the Tedeschi Trucks Band.
Unlike the vast majority of guitarists, Trucks plays almost exclusively slide guitar. His slide technique, the purity of his tone and his phrasing are all phenomenal. What I find most impressive about him though, is his insightful and unusual approach to soloing:
You’re trying to hit on emotions, you’re trying to move people. I’m not going to go and see someone because they’re ‘good’. It’s much more about trying to hit on different emotions within a set
This is abundantly clear when you listen to Trucks’ soloing. In many songs (blues or otherwise), there’s a tension that builds up until the guitar solo. This is often fairly predictable, and is perhaps even easier to predict in the blues, where the structure of the songs are simplistic. That you may be able to spot a solo from a mile off isn’t necessarily a problem in itself. If you feel the tension of a song building towards the solo, then when the solo starts and that tension is broken, there’s a moment of euphoria for the listener. The problem is when the euphoria of the solo dissipates quickly.
Blues music is all about hitting on emotions. As soon as a guitarist focuses on how a solo makes them feel, rather than their audience – everything falls to pieces. It might sound obvious, but a startlingly number of guitarists play in this way.
Even within blues guitar playing – which I enjoy partly because it stands in opposition to the onanistic world of shred guitar – there’s a growing trend of very long solos, with players running pentatonic licks up and down the neck. This is great for a song or two – but it doesn’t keep you captivated for long.
Don’t get me wrong – I have nothing against shred guitar. Secretly I’m just jealous that I can’t play faster than 60 BPM. Also, playing the guitar is brilliant – whatever style you choose. There is however an important distinction between what you enjoy and what makes you feel good, versus what the listener enjoys and what makes them feel good. Recognising this distinction is important and often overlooked.
Trucks is a master of this, because his solos are neither predictable, nor are they self-congratulatory. Unlike many players – it doesn’t feel like his solos are wedged into a song because he wants to solo; it feels like they belong exactly where he places them. Often you can’t see them coming and the way they develop is different to how you might anticipate. His pacing and his ability to keep you gripped are both exceptional.
‘Notes are Expensive, Spend them Wisely’
Prior to discovering Derek Trucks, I was spending a lot of mental energy on worrying about getting faster as a player. That concern still remains, but I’m now devoting an increasing amount of time and focus on the sound and the feel of my playing. If you get that right, then everything else falls into place.
Playing a couple of notes with amazing tone and phrasing is impressive; playing lots of notes with an absence of feeling is not so impressive. As B.B. King so perfectly summed it up: ‘Notes are expensive, spend them wisely’. We should never forget that.
Trucks’ Best Solos
To choose just 5 songs from Trucks’ discography proved very tricky. So I have no doubt that I will have made some notable omissions. If you’re new to Trucks though, these songs will provide you with a great starting point and give you a broader sense of his style and playing.
For the majority of the song, the horn section drives the piece forward. There is very little guitar work – that is, until the last minute and a half. Trucks then unleashes an unbelievable solo that always makes me smile, no matter how much I listen to it.
There are two brilliant guitar solos in this song. The first exhibits Trucks’s beautiful tone in all of it’s glory, and the second sees Trucks and Tedeschi intertwine vocals and guitar over each other, bringing the song to a powerful crescendo.
The riffs and vocals are punchy and raw; the soloing is as pure and melodic as anything Trucks has ever recorded. In many of the other songs listed, the solos bring a certain energy to the piece. In contrast, here they offer respite from the gritty vocals and the main bluesy riff that drives the song forward.
The lyrics and vocals of this song are beautiful and Trucks punctuates the piece with short, delicate frills and licks. His final solo – lasting over two minutes – sounds less like a guitar and more like an extension of the vocals. It is a masterful demonstration of control and one of my favourite solos from him.
Along with Duane Allman and Elmore James, Trucks came to be heavily influenced by Indian music. Sahib Teri Bandi – Mali Madni is an amazing example of these influences and an illustration of his brilliant musicianship.
Recommended Albums – ’Already Free’ (The Derek Trucks Band), ‘Let Me Get By’ (Tedeschi Trucks Band), ‘Made Up Mind’ (Tedeschi Trucks Band), ‘Songlines’ (The Derek Trucks Band), ‘Revelator’ (Tedeschi Trucks Band)